Aug 272008

If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, you’ve got to find a way to monetize the huge traffic Facebook attracts, which they recently claimed has grown to 100 million active users. Advertisers want to reach this mostly young, tech literate demographic. Last week Facebook announced a new beta program that could work for some companies but not many, and changes a fundamental aspect of advertising.

Called Engagement Ads, these placements can be edited by users with comments, saved to Fan pages and sent to friends as virtual gifts. Cnet’s Caroline McCarthy provides a good rundown, with information first reported by Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang:

Since the goal is a large degree of consumer interaction, established consumer brands would seem to be the only advertisers that would fit. Consumers need to know what the product is before they interact with it — smaller less known companies need not apply. But the really revolutionary aspect to me is the ability of consumers to editorialize on the messaging.

Like it or hate it, one of the constants in advertising is the fact that the advertiser controls the message. That degree of control is often contrasted with public relations, in which you “earn” media rather than buying it and don’t control the final message. Engagement ads change the equation — you’re purchasing advertising but don’t have control, since the message can be changed by the audience.

This may lead to spectacular viral success, depending on the enthusiasm level of the brand following. But it can also lead to spectacular failure, if aggrieved consumers use the power of Facebook networking to spread negative comments about the advertiser. Owyang says it the best — Facebook is experimenting, and that means caveat emptor for advertisers:

“Facebook is throwing all kinds of pasta at the wall when it comes to marketing and to see what sticks,” Owyang said. “They haven’t figured it out, and unfortunately, they’re using brands as the guinea pigs and their customers. They really have to make it clear to their community what works and what doesn’t, and develop best practices sooner or later.”

At Strategic Communications Group we counsel clients on how to participate on social networks like Facebook. For all but the biggest consumer brands, there are better ways to identify and engage the right groups on Facebook than experimenting with Engagement ads.

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